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Editorial: California isn’t on pace to meet its climate targets. Here are 3 ways to cut pollution faster

Solar panels seen at California at Buchanan High School in Clovis.
Solar panels seen at California at Buchanan High School in Clovis. California is lagging in its reductions of greenhouse and needs to more quickly shift to renewable energy and zero-emission transportation to meet its climate goals.
(Tomas Ovalle / Los Angeles Times)

California is behind in reducing climate-warming pollution and needs to get its act together.

A sobering new report found that California reduced greenhouse gas emissions by only 1.6% between 2018 and 2019, the latest year for which data are available. To meet its legal mandate to cut emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, the state needs to reduce pollution by 4.3% every year, more than double the 2019 rate, according to the analysis released by the San Francisco-based Next 10 think tank.

That meager progress is alarming and bodes ill for state and global efforts to stave off catastrophic climate disruption. The stakes could not be higher, particularly in California, where we are already seeing the impacts of a warming planet in deadly waves, wildfires and air pollution. But state leaders are dawdling when they should be racing to save our planet.

Here are three actions state regulators and lawmakers can take in the next year to pick up the pace.

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Strengthen zero-emission vehicle rules and incentives

Transportation remains California’s largest source of planet-warming pollution, but the switch to zero-emission vehicles isn’t happening fast enough to meet the state’s goals to reduce emissions and end sales of gas-powered models by 2035.

The impending closure of Diablo Canyon shows the need for California to double down on renewable energy and accelerate the transition.

The California Air Resources Board is working on new zero-emission vehicle standards, but as currently drafted, they are too weak to put the state on track. Air quality regulators should require that automakers move faster to increase the percentage of zero-emission vehicles they sell and more quickly phase out gas-powered models.

But pollution won’t begin declining from those rules until after 2025. So state lawmakers should also take advantage of a $31-billion budget surplus and set aside billions of dollars to accelerate vehicle electrification, and increase clean-vehicle rebates for people in low-income and polluted communities that stand to benefit most from the switch to electric vehicles.

Get more renewable electricity online, fast

The power sector has been responsible for much of the state’s greenhouse gas reductions so far, but that progress has slowed considerably. The share of California’s power from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources inched up by a lackluster 1.4% in 2020, according to the Next 10 report.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is preparing to make it harder for Californians to go solar. That’s OK, but regulators would be unwise to gut one of the state’s most popular and successful renewable energy programs.

The California Public Utilities Commission can get more renewables online faster by adopting a more aggressive 2030 emissions target for the electric power sector. In 2020, the commission adopted a target that doesn’t go far enough to achieve the state’s climate goals. It should be set at a more stringent level to foster stronger renewable energy growth by the end of the decade.

Energy regulators also need to get more transmission line upgrades going so that more solar and wind farms, and other green energy projects, can start supplying carbon-free electricity to the grid.

Phase out gas heating of buildings

Natural gas consumption in California buildings is on the rise, and our reliance on the fossil fuel for furnaces, stoves, dryers and water heaters is a major obstacle in the climate fight. We need to electrify homes and commercial buildings. But city-by-city gas bans and building code changes to shift to electric heating in new construction can only do so much. State legislators also need to hasten the switch in existing buildings.

Lawmakers should budget money to the California Energy Commission to establish a program that prioritizes low-income households for electrification, including the installation of energy-efficient heat pumps that can cool homes in the summer and heat them during the winter, electrical panel upgrades, and solar panels and batteries that will reduce demand for gas, and in the process, build resilience to climate-fueled extreme weather events.

Heat waves, wildfire smoke and power outages are becoming an unfortunate reality of living with climate change, but these types of projects can help cut planet-warming pollution while girding homes in vulnerable communities for its impacts.


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